The UNESCO vote: Implications for the U.S.

November 09, 2011 IMEU
The UNESCO vote: Implications for the U.S.

On October 31 the member nations of UNESCO voted 107-14 to admit Palestine to the organization. This move triggered the implementation of two pre-existing U.S. laws resulting in Washington cutting all funding for the organization. An immediate tranche of $60 million will not be delivered in November.

The UNESCO vote underscores a dilemma for U.S. policymakers. Palestinian officials say they are studying whether they can join 16 additional U.N. organizations. As a result, the U.S. could be forced to pull out of a number of important international organizations. A mass pullout from U.N. organizations would blunt U.S. diplomacy, adversely affect commerce, and end American participation in important world bodies.




According to a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990, the U.S. is obligated to withdraw its funding of any U.N. body which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the status of a member state.

A similar law passed in 1994 bars funding to a U.N. body which "grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."

Withdrawal of funding will likely be accompanied by a U.S. departure from the same U.N. agencies. Shortly after Palestine was voted in as a member state, the U.S. announced it was cutting its funding to UNESCO. The U.S. was responsible for 22 percent of UNESCO's annual budget, and the estimated withdrawal of funds is approximately $70 to $80 million per year.



UNESCO and the U.S.

Any withdrawal from UNESCO means the U.S. will be denied the benefits of membership in the organization. United Nations Foundation President and former Senator Timothy Wirth noted some benefits of U.S. membership in UNESCO, as well as the potential ramifications of its departure, such as to the tsunami warning system coordinated by UNESCO and to the U.S.'s literacy and educational efforts in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal could also have implications for U.S. programs overseas. In a letter to theWashington Post, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova cites UNESCO's work with the U.S. government and the U.S. private sector on human rights and educational initiatives from Tunisia and Egypt to Senegal and Tanzania, all of which will likely come to an end as the U.S. withdraws its funding from the U.N. organization.




Membership in UNESCO also grants Palestine membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), meaning that the U.S. may eventually be forced to withdraw from that organization, although Washington is reportedly unlikely to pull out quickly.

If the U.S. were to withdraw from WIPO, it could not use that body to internationally coordinate intellectual property rights protections. Among other things, this would make it more difficult to negotiate disputes over internet domain names (so-called "cyber-squatting" cases), which are important to American corporations and celebrities.

U.S. officials say, however, that UNESCO and WIPO could be just the beginning. 

"This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, told Foreign Policy magazine's The Cable in early November.

Looming large on the list of U.N. organizations is the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the world institution working to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The Vienna-based watchdog has played a key role in monitoring the nuclear programs of countries like Iran and North Korea. Palestine can gain membership in the IAEA through a simple majority vote.

According to Foreign Policy Magazine, depending on the strategic choices of the PLO, the U.S. could also be forced to cut ties with a host of other U.N. bodies, including the following:

  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): The U.S. donates $161 million a year to this body, including funds used to combat the spread of avian flu. Palestine could gain membership with a two-thirds vote.
  • World Food Programme (WFP): The U.S. contributes about $1.5 billion a year to this organization to fight world hunger. The WFP does not have its own class of member states, but membership in the FAO would allow Palestine to run for a seat on the WFP's executive committee.
  • World Health Organization (WHO): The U.S. contributes some $387 million to this Geneva-based institution in order fight HIV/AIDS, avian flu, polio, and other diseases. Membership is granted through a simple majority vote.
  • International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO): Washington provides $23 million in funds for this organization which is responsible for maintaining international airplane safety, noise, and emissions standards. Membership requires a vote of four-fifths of the body's members.
  • Other specialized agencies: Among the other agencies the U.S. could be forced to withdraw from include the International Labor Organization, the International Fund for Agriculture Development, the International Telecommunications Union, and the International Postal Union.

The U.S. is doing its utmost to pin responsibility for its possible departure from U.N. agencies on the Palestinians. Already, efforts are afoot to blame the Palestinians for harm to at-risk communities. The world seems unlikely to view the U.S. blackmail and likely defection in the same way as the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress and the State Department. Instead, the United States is apt to be seen as pursuing self-isolating policies.